A Sustainable Journey Need Not Be the Road Less Traveled

To mark Earth Day 2016, we asked our Chief Sustainability Officer Beth Heider to capture the essence of a recent address she gave to the Women Build America conference earlier this month. In that address, Beth explored a new paradigm to create value driven leadership across diverse business units, cultures and profit structures. 

When a restaurant advertises “home cooking,” that isn’t enough information to make me head inside and order a meal.  For me, it really depends on whose home cooking we’re talking about. In the end, it’s a value proposition.

The same is true for corporations: when we choose to laud or emulate a company’s efforts, we need to ask, are we talking about Walt Disney or Bernie Madoff?

Values are meant to articulate our own high aspirations; a comprehensive culture that transcends profit.  To that end, values-driven leadership doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it is a journey that a company and its employees take together.

I have a values journey of my own – one that articulates my deeply held beliefs about sustainable building practices and their importance to leaving a desirable legacy for future generations.

Like many journeys, I didn’t intentionally set out to get to where I am today.  My own values served as an internal compass. It brought me to intersect with Skanska, which followed a values compass of its own.

Let me rewind.

2015 LOGO-BuildingWhatMatters-Green

Two decades and two employers and ago, my boss at a construction firm came storming into our open office area – this kind of a mosh pit of humanity – where we were sweating to get a bid together.   He yelled, “The problem with you, Heider, is that you need to learn how to lie better.”

One of our subs, who always came through with good prices and complete scopes had asked me a fair question and I answered him honestly – behavior that my boss found unacceptable.  Stunned and humiliated at his tongue lashing, and after a good cry in the ladies room and three months to think it over, I quit to take a job at a consulting firm. That experience made me unsure that I ever wanted to work at another construction company, doubting the industry would ever align with my values compass. Six years later, I found myself entertaining a job offer from Skanska, one of the biggest construction companies on the planet.

At the time, Skanska was pursuing two federal courthouse projects. Having spent three years building a cost tool to establish the more than $1 billion federal budget for new court construction, Skanska wanted me to bring that expertise to their shop.  But before I took what I thought would be a dream assignment, I needed to know that their values compass pointed in the same direction as mine.

I got my answer in the form of two events, one at Skanska and one in my own career.

In 1997, Skanska was building a rail tunnel in Hallandsås, Sweden. The tunnel ran through a particularly nasty piece of geology and the injectable grout used to manage water infiltration leached into a nearby aquifer.  An environmental disaster followed, and news reports of poisoned cows and sick workers had a devastating effect on Skanska’s reputation.

Rather than phoning in a fix, Skanska leadership chose to change how they did business: having a third-party certify all future operations globally under ISO 14001 Environmental Standards.  ISO requires an environmental management plan that addresses project-specific hazards, and further commits a company to incrementally raise the bar on its own environmental performance. It required a significant financial investment from Skanska, as well as thorough company-wide education. But it was the right thing to do, and Skanska emerged to successfully continue with the project.

Meanwhile, back in the US, GSA was beginning its own journey, exploring the cost commitment necessary to green the federal workplace.  Daunting to my colleagues but fascinating to me, I climbed aboard the green bus. It was the beginning of my own sustainability journey – making the business case for green – and unbeknownst to me, put me on an intercept course with Skanska, whose values compass that had been reset by the Hallandsås tunnel experience, and now aligned with my own.

Last year, Skanska cut the ribbon on the Hallandsås Tunnel, successfully completed under  ISO 14001 certification and without further environmental incident.

PHOTO-Hallandsås Tunnel

Now, nearly 20 years later, Skanska is looking inward again and asking: do we really need to wait for the next crisis to change how we operate, or can we change to prevent the next crisis from happening? Further, why do we exist as a company?  What is our purpose?

As builders, Skanska creates projects that fulfill the needs of society – whether a tunnel, a hospital, a commercial building or an airport.

Equally important is how we create those critical projects. We aspire, not only to “do less bad,” but to accomplish good. Our corporate values – depicted as four connected arcs – form the foundation for our corporate purpose: to Build for a Better Society:

Care for Life:

    for the safety of our people and the health of our environment, and to be accountable for both;

Act Ethically and Transparently:

    to be honest, to do what’s right and to adhere to a clearly delineated Code of Conduct;

Be Better Together:

    we believe in collaboration that drives innovation and continuous improvement, while embracing and harnessing the power of diversity to foster an inclusive culture;

Commit to Customers:

    to listen, understand and add value to our customers so they are successful.

This rearticulation of our values compass is charting yet another new course for Skanska.

Former CEO of Alcoa and Secretary of the US Treasury Paul O’Neil has said, “The number one reason employees choose to stay in their current job isn’t because they work for a great company – it is because they felt they were enabled to contribute to achieve shared and ambitious goals.”

2016 PHOTO-SkanskaManInPPE

Millennials will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025.  Studies emphasize they prize values over compensation at all stages of their careers, including the employers they choose, the assignments they accept and the decisions they make as they take on more senior-level roles.  They want to work for organizations that have purpose beyond profit and that align with their own moral compass.

This is not just a new value – more senior employees can also be driven by that satisfaction of having contributed to something that defines the greater good and leaves a generational legacy worth inheriting.  That should give us all great hope for the future of our collective journey. With a values compass aligned with our peers, it is a path we can embrace, because walking it together will elevate our industry and our world.

Elizabeth Heider

Elizabeth Heider

Chief Sustainability Officer, Skanska USA

More Posts - Website

Share this postShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponPin on PinterestTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone
{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment